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Cancer Genetics Risk Assessment and Counseling (PDQ®): Genetics - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Education and Counseling About Risk / Risk Communication

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Risk Communication

The purpose of risk counseling is to provide individuals with accurate information about their risk, help them understand and interpret their risk, assist them as they use this information to make important health care decisions, and help them make the best possible adjustment to their situation. A systematic review of 28 studies that evaluated communication interventions showed that risk communication benefits users cognitively by increasing their knowledge and understanding of risk perception and does not negatively influence affect (anxiety, cancer-related worry, and depression). Risk communication does not appear to result in a change in use of screening practices and tests. Users received the most benefit from an approach utilizing risk communication along with genetic counseling.[6,7] Perceptions of risk are affected by the manner in which risk information is presented, difficulty understanding probability and heredity,[8,9] and other psychological processes on the part of individuals and providers.[10] Risk may be communicated in many ways (e.g., with numbers, words, or graphics; alone or in relation to other risks; as the probability of having an adverse event; in relative or absolute terms; and through combinations of these methods). The way in which risk information is communicated may affect the individual's perception of the magnitude of that risk. In general, relative risk estimates (e.g., "You have a threefold increased risk of colorectal cancer") are perceived as less informative than absolute risk (e.g., "You have a 25% risk of colorectal cancer") [11] or risk information presented as a ratio (e.g., 1 in 4).[9] A strong preference for having BRCA1/2 mutation risk estimates expressed numerically is reported by women considering testing.[12] Individuals associate widely differing quantitative risks with qualitative descriptors of risk such as "rare" or "common."[13] More research is needed on the best methods of communicating risk in order to help individuals develop an accurate understanding of their cancer risks.

Communication Strategies

Recent descriptive examination of the process of cancer genetic counseling has found that counseling sessions are predominantly focused on the biomedical teaching required to inform clients of their choices and to put genetic findings in perspective but that attention to psychosocial issues does not detract from teaching goals and may enhance satisfaction in clients undergoing counseling. For instance, one study of communication patterns in 167 pretest counseling sessions for BRCA1 found the sessions to have a predominantly biomedical and educational focus;[14] however, this approach was client focused, with the counselor and client contributing equally to the dialogue. These authors note that there was a marked diversity in counselor styles, both between counselors and within different sessions, for each counselor. The finding of a didactic style was corroborated by other researchers who examined observer-rated content checklists and videotape of 51 counseling sessions for breast cancer susceptibility.[15] Of note, genetic counselors seemed to rely on demographic information and breast cancer history to tailor genetic counseling sessions rather than client's self-reported expectations or psychosocial factors.[16] Concurrent provision of psychosocial and scientific information may be important in reducing worry in the context of counseling about cancer genetics topics.[17] An increasing appreciation of language choices may contribute to enhanced understanding and reduced anxiety levels in the session; for example, it was noted that patients may appreciate synonymic choices for the word "mutation," such as "altered gene".[18] Some authors have published recommendations for cultural tailoring of educational materials for the African-American population, such as a large flip chart, including the use of simple language and pictures, culturally identifiable images (e.g., spiritual symbols and tribal patterns), bright colors, and humor.[19]

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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